Hello, my name is Alan Mackenzie.
I’m an online safety specialist working with Securus to explain some of the key elements of the online safety landscape and to give you some tips to promote best-practices of online safety in schools.
Now when I say I’m a specialist, this is exactly what I mean. Online safety is all I do. Nothing else.
I travel the country working in schools with students, staff and parents. So what I’m bringing to you is my experience and opinion.
Online Safety Specialist
The Evolving Landscape of Online Safety
The landscape of online safety is evolving all the time and it’s now such a huge area, it’s impossible to keep up with absolutely everything, which is why I specialise in certain areas.
So I’ve put together this series of 6 articles and videos on various topics of online safety, within the context of children and young people in schools. These articles and videos are quick, simple and basic. They won’t go into great detail, but do give you some helpful and practical information to think about.
This article, 1 of 6 in this series, is a simple introduction to online safety with a few quick tips.
In the next article, we’ll go on to talk about Content, Contact, Conduct and Commerce (the 4 C’s of online safety) – these are the four main risk areas, so understanding these first really allows us to simplify things.
Then we’ll follow this up with articles on each of the 3 most common online activities of children and young people:
And in the final article of the series, I’ll be giving some general online safety tips and guidance for school leaders.
Let’s get started…
In this series about Online Safety in Schools:
Introduction to Online Safety
Online safety is a huge area and it’s growing all the time. Years ago we might have concentrated on important areas such as child sexual exploitation or cyber bullying, among others.
But now we’re facing issues such as digital self harm and skin gambling, taking and sharing sexually explicit images or videos, and so much more. In other words, we’re crossing over many different themes now – from safety to well-being to mental health and relationships.
Equally, more academic research has given us a better understanding of certain online behaviours, meaning that we can alter the ways in which we talk about certain things in the classroom, to have a greater impact.
So with all that in mind, we need to remember your primary responsibility, regardless of whether you’re a caretaker, a classroom teacher, governor, dinner-time supervisor or whatever else. Our priority is safeguarding and child protection.
The Importance of Curiosity
My first piece of advice is so simple yet so important – it’s just curiosity. Let me give you an example…
I remember once speaking to a class of Year 3’s (7–8 year-olds) and I asked this class how many had their own YouTube channel. There were about four or five of them, which is fairly common. However, all but one were happy to tell me what type of videos they made.
For the one that wouldn’t tell me, it wasn’t necessarily what she said that concerned me – it was the expression on her face. I can’t explain it, but something just didn’t feel right.
And that’s where curiosity kicked in. So after the lesson myself and the class teacher nipped onto YouTube and very easily found this young girl’s channel, where what we found was very disturbing. I won’t say what we found exactly, but suffice to say that a child protection investigation was initiated at that point.
And that’s what I mean by curiosity. We all have it.
We’ve all got that gut feeling when we know something doesn’t sound quite right and you should never ever push that feeling to one side. In most cases there’ll be nothing wrong, but you don’t know that, so always follow it up.
Now to be curious, you have to know what children and young people are doing online and why they’re doing it, of course. And this brings us onto opportunities and risks.
Opportunities and Risks
It’s very easy to concentrate on all the bad things, but we need to recognise that the online world brings huge opportunities in enjoyment, hobbies, and education in the classroom, workplace, and so much more.
Children are growing up in a world that is massively different to what many older adults experience and the opportunities that are open to them are immense.
But these opportunities have to be very carefully balanced to the risky situations that children can become exposed to as a natural part of curiosity, boundary breaking, inexperience, or purely by accident (or as we generally call it, “just growing up”).
Being aware of media sensationalism
As adults we need to be very critical of what we’re seeing in the media. Remember, those headlines are there to sell news or to sell a product. They can often be biased and scaremongering, or factually incorrect.
So if we base our understanding of children’s online lives on such information, we’re going to do those children a massive disservice. Particularly older students who just switch off and younger children who might be frightened.
A couple of examples of this would be something you probably see quite often online, such as: — ‘The Top 10 Dangerous Apps For Kids’ or ‘The Secret Sexting Codes That Teenagers Use’ — I bang my head against the wall every time I see these kinds of headlines being shared over and over on social media by well-intentioned people and public bodies. But it’s plainly wrong.
Technology is not the enemy
There’s no such thing as a dangerous app. It’s how they’re being used and by whom, and equally if you speak to any young person about these so-called secret sexting codes, either as a parent or as a teacher, they’re just going to laugh at you.
Technology isn’t going to go away, whether we like it or not. It’s evolving at an extraordinary rate and it’s having a significant effect on all of our lives, and our job whether as parents or educators, is to introduce children to the massive potential the online world gives to them and the incredible amount of good that global connectivity can give to all of us.
But as part of that, we have to show them that just as in the real world, there are going to be negatives and they need to know how to recognise the negatives and spot when something’s going wrong or just doesn’t feel quite right, and know what to do about it or who to turn to for help.
Well-being and other emotional effects
But of course, with these greater opportunities come greater challenges, not only in terms of the normal risks that we tend to talk about, but also issues such as the emotional effects of using technology and if or how it can affect well-being.
Classic examples will be things such as addiction and the use of social media or gaming. The word addiction is one that’s thrown around far too easily and for all the studies supposedly providing a link to social media and gaming, there are just as many studies debunking those theories.
For myself, I do take an interest in these studies, but treat them with a pinch of salt. I still think we’re in our early days of understanding these things.
Firstly, remember that curiosity is a key factor in any aspect of safeguarding, including online, especially if the students are talking about something you’ve never heard about before, or if they’re behaving differently to what you would consider their normal behaviour.
Just have a chat. Speaking with the students about the topic will either put your mind at rest or consider whether further investigation or intervention is needed.
Finally, maintain a balance. The media in particular and perhaps the behaviour issues you’re seeing in school, may point you to the conclusion that the balance is towards the negative, but my experience of speaking to children and young people over many years is that the balance is overwhelmingly positive.
In the next article, we’ll be considering the four main risk areas – Content, Contact, Conduct and Commerce.